Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, March 30, 2018

The Future is Now

When I was growing up, Fiddler on the Roof was a staple of the family's record collection. My siblings and I would put it on and sing and dance (but not too vigorously, so that the record wouldn't skip.) We knew the whole original cast recording by heart. We watched the movie, starring Topol and not Zero Mostel, but still effective. Fiddler on the Roof was part of the fabric of my childhood, and it's a show that I still love dearly.

Ever since our local community theater announced that our summer show would be Fiddler, I've been getting ready. In the past shows, I was content to be thrown in wherever a body was needed, chorus or ensemble or background face, but this time I'm ready to express a preference: Golde, the mother, a role that doesn't require the figure of an ingenue or the voice of an angel -- a role in which it's an asset to be a grand multipara. Being a grand multipara is the reason I'm often ineligible, unavailable, or too tired to do the things that I wish I could, and here is a case where it actually gives me an edge.

I've even found the perfect audition songs: Little Girls, from Annie ("Some women are dripping with pearls", sung with just the right amount of contempt for and envy of the late Fruma Sarah), and Something Wonderful, from The King and I. Not only that, but in order to make sure that I was on my A-game, I booted my daughters from their voice lesson slot and spent an hour with their teacher honing my delivery. She advised me to raise my soft palate and provided me with a lot of helpful images, which I share here with you in case you're considering auditioning for a musical:

Sing down a ski slope
Verge of tears
Falling forward
Like a sneeze, or a yawn
Imagine an egg in the back of your throat.

And what do you know? These things made a difference! I've been practicing reaching down for the high F in Something Wonderful and working the phrasing and the dynamics, and it's sounding not inadequate for a community theater production in central Ohio. I could do this. It could be me.

Yesterday my girls came in and told me the news that our theater company wasn't able to obtain the rights to Fiddler and is instead doing Big River this summer.

George Eliot says in Middlemarch:
We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time; keep back the tears and look a little pale about the lips, and in answer to inquiries say, 'Oh, nothing!' Pride helps us; and pride is not a bad thing when it only urges us to hide our own hurts -- not to hurt others.
We all have these little mortifications, disappointments to our hopes and our plans and our wills. They're too insignificant to be fully explained to anyone else, and too petty to be indulged in. They can't be taken out on others, and are not even always anyone's fault. And yet the pain is real.

This is the trying-ground for dying to self: not the big ordeal or the major suffering, but the tiny interior relinquishment of my own will. These minor battles are a blessing -- they offer no consequences or trial or pain to anyone else but me, to no real loss to myself, no actual hardship. I only offer up the future I thought I could create.

Jesus tells us that he who is faithful in small things will be faithful in large. I've had a number of these small mortifications lately, adjustments to the image I had of how I might accomplish things or the ways I wish others would perceive me. They pale into nothing at the foot of the cross, and it's when I move away from the cross that they take on an exaggerated significance. Only the cross brings healing and relief from the inflation of my own will. The reality of the cross, the eternally-present sacrifice, grounds me and protects me from trying to manipulate the future to suit my own ends, and the pride that hurts others.

Behold, the cross.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Good Friday, 1865

I'm sure I'd heard this somewhere before, but it was as I was reading Chernow's Grant biography during the last couple weeks that the fact struck me that President Lincoln was assassinated on Good Friday, 1865. The president was out at Ford's Theater watching a comedy, Our American Cousin.

I often think of the past as having been more religious, and less inclined towards everything being open all the time despite holidays or holy days. Thus, it seemed odd at first that Washington DC's high society was all out watching a farce on the evening of Good Friday. But then, of course, the it's not necessarily the case that the past was more religious than the present, and also celebration of Good Friday as a solemn day is fairly uneven among different Protestant denominations and at different times.

Regardless, God rest the soul of one of our greatest American presidents.

Reflections on a Lent Without Facebook, II

Darwin wrote about being off Facebook for Lent. My own perspective is similar: I felt that online interaction was taking up too much mental and spiritual space, and wanted to pull back for forty days, and I've found it very beneficial. But I haven't had the same results as he has, in regards to productivity.

I'm not one to have a lot of background sound: music, TV, podcasts, etc. My life, perhaps, has enough background noise. And yet, Facebook was serving as background noise for me -- something that filled the empty time. I tended to scroll a good deal while nursing the baby. I haven't stopped nursing the baby, but now I tend to do it in silence.

The result of cutting out online chatter has been a great mental and spiritual silence. Not the silence of dryness, but of peace. I'm not meditating on other people's drama, or composing my next clever status. I'm quiet.

Along with the quiet has come a sort of forced inactivity. Baby is working hard on making the transition from infant to toddler. He crawls and pulls up and cruises. He needs to be watched constantly because he's ever putting things in his mouth, and this is a Lego-rich environment. Time that I had been spending holding him in an arm while clicking around is now spent on more direct supervision, because you can't trust the guy's judgment. In addition, he's gone from having not a tooth in his head to sporting two fine pearly whites, and he's presently in a great deal of agitation about his emerging top teeth. Yesterday and today in particular have been days of intensive baby soothing, as he whimpers and flails and tantrums over the unhappy lumps in his mouth where that top tooth is going to break through any day now. Baby is my job right now, and all other jobs have to be put on the back burner. Writing has fallen by the wayside, and so has reading almost anything but what's within arm's reach of the bed or chair that I happen to be nursing him in. For the past two weeks, I've read almost nothing but my Bible and my grandfather's collection of Rex Stout's mystery novels.

This all comes at a time when I've suddenly acquired several writing projects besides my ever-present novel revisions. These projects involve deadlines, and one even is for pay. Baby is absorbing much of my free time, and generally puts me to bed each night. How and where will I find the time to get my work done?

These questions agitate me much less than they ought, perhaps. It seems somehow fitting that the last days of Lent should bring an intensification of my Lenten retreat, in ways I didn't count on. Giving up Facebook has been almost too easy. I've neither missed it nor been once tempted to log on. Giving up the time I thought I'd gained for myself has been more of a dying to self. But these few days before Easter have become a time of waiting. It seems right that I'm suspended in anticipation. Everything is poised for action, but the moment isn't now, and the timing isn't mine to choose.

Spiritual warfare isn't the first lens I reach for to view the world, but it also seems as if temptations and trying circumstances are pressing in more keenly here at the finish. Temptation is, in a way, a gift: a chance to assess where you're weakest by observing at which point the enemy thinks he has an opening. Better yet if you can remember, in the midst of it, that it is an temptation and not an imperative, lest you look back and realize, "Well, shoot, I failed that test." I don't have to be strong enough to fight temptation without God's help. I'm often tripped up by forgetting that. If temptation causes me to rely on God's strength and not my own, then it is a gift.

Like Darwin, I need to figure out my plan for engaging with social media post-Lent. I don't want to cut off a valuable avenue of communication with many friends. At the same time, I don't want to be sucked into the whirlpool of everyone sounding off about cultural and political agitation that seems expressly fomented for the purpose of being clickbait. In the past weeks, as I've lived outside the echo chamber of hashtag campaigns, I've fought and witnessed the real-life battles of humility and dying to self that come every day with family and parish life, no less important for being small and mostly unattested. In writing my letters for Lent, I've had the space to listen to the prompting of the Spirit as to what to write, the pleasure of knowing that I was making direct contact with another person individually, and the humility that comes of pouring yourself out without the instant gratification of response, or the need for response at all. It was a valuable and enjoyable exercise I'd like to sustain.

As we move into the Triduum, I'll be praying about what boundaries to draw to maintain the peace and internal silence of a social media fast while preserving valuable friendships.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Mindsets: Growth, Fixed, and Realistic

While most of my reading consists of novels and history, I also end up with the occasional business book recommended by someone connected at work. On a business trip last week, I took one of these with me, the psychology/self-help best seller Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck.

Like a lot of pop insight books of this type, Mindset consists of one idea which is then illustrated by numerous examples, drawing what could conceptually be a 5-10 page article into a 300 page book. In this case, the idea is that success is achieved through having a 'growth mindset', the idea that skills/abilities are increased by experience and learning rather than stemming from innate qualities. To someone with a growth mindset, you might try something difficult and fail, but so long as you learn from the experience you can become better at it in the future and master it in the long run. This idea that you can grow and improve inspires one to hard work, the development of greater ability, and thus success. The opposite of this is a 'fixed mindset', the idea that abilities are mostly the result of innate qualities that we have little ability to improve.

According to Dweck's schema: people with a fixed mindset who try something new and find themselves not very good at it will often conclude that just isn't something they have the ability to do and not try again. Someone with a fixed mindset who tries something the first time and does succeed may conclude that they are naturally good at it and may put a good deal of work into it. However, they may be tempted to avoid circumstances that could lead to failure (since failure would prove that they aren't actually all that good) and when they do have occasional failures they'll be tempted to blame that on some outside factor rather than learning what they did wrong and improving. Someone with a growth mindset will learn from failures rather than concluding that they are a failure at some deeper level, and thus be much more inclined to put the hard work in to get better at some given activity over time.

This basic concept is then illustrated by may examples: business, sports, education, leadership, relationships, etc.

The main place I'd read this kind of thing before was in articles advising parents that it's better to tell a child, "You did really well on that math test, you must have worked really hard on that. Good job." rather than "You did really well on that math test, you must be really smart and gifted at math." on the theory that the latter suggests to the child that mathematical ability is fixed and not expandable, and thus as soon as the child hits something in math that he can't master, he'll conclude, "Well, that's the limit of my ability. I guess I just can't do that."

The basic concepts make a fair amount of sense, though I find this structure of book a little frustrating in that it seems like one one to get through a lot of examples to get through the author's entire thought structure. As I say: it seems to me this could be a 5-10 page article rather than a 300 page book if the extra re-enforcing examples were removed.

Of course one of the things one does when reading a book like this is try to measure oneself against it and see how one measures up. In this sense, it struck me that I have a pretty split way of addressing this topic. On the one hand, I do tend to assume that putting lots of time and work in is the primary way of getting good at something. Sometimes this means that I put lots of time into an activity and get better at it. Other times it means that I recognize my lack of progress on something is a result of not putting in enough time. One of my major problems is limited time, so it's not unusual for me to decide, "I could get better at this if I put the time in, but the fact of the matter is that getting good at this is not a high enough priority for me right now to do that work." In relation to myself, I pretty much have a growth mindset.

I also have a growth mindset, in general, about the people I am most directly responsible for. I am in charge of setting the weekly (sometimes daily) task list for our oldest three children in their schooling (6th, 8th, and 10th grades). Each student has her own particular strengths and weaknesses. However, I'm confident that even if one is not a prodigy at language or a math, with sufficient work (and searching for an approach that works) she can reach a functional level of competency.

However, as I think about it, I also have a tendency (which I think of as realism) not to assume that people will change in major ways unless they appear to be working on it.

At work, I have several people who do not have good command skills when dealing with small groups. If a 5-6 people are discussing a project, even if one of these people has the expertise and knowledge to speak up and guide the others, they will not do so, beyond perhaps a hesitant suggestion. (This contrasts with my approach, in that in those circumstances I almost always speak up and start guiding the discussion.) Now, I do think that this kind of group leadership can be a learned skill. I've seen people work hard to improve it and get better at it, and so when I know someone who works for me is taking steps on improving presentation and leadership skills, I have faith that they will in fact improve and I'll put them in the way of opportunities to do so. But most of the people I've had work for or with me who lack that skill (or others such as ability to do abstract data analysis, ability to write clearly, etc.) show very little interest on working on those skills. They have (at least in relation to those skills) what the book describes as a fixed mindset. And given a situation like that, where they're not working on those skills, I in turn tend to assume both that their skills are fixed and also that their lack of interest in them is fixed. Sure, I'll occasionally point out, "You could do XYZ," but I tent to accept that if someone isn't interested in improving, they won't improve, and thus not expect them to do so.

Is this fair?

The more intensive approach to "developing people" management would say that it is not. By this theory, I should be consistently pushing everyone who works for me or with me to do better, and if they don't put i the work to do better, marking them down for not putting in the effort. And this shows the double edged sword aspect of this mindset. Assuming that everyone can get better at everything means that you don't put someone in a box of "not good at presenting" or "not good at analysis". However, it also means that you're constantly blaming people for not having exerted themselves to improve then they could.

When people act like fixed quantities, I tend to treat them as fixed quantities. If they're making no moves to get better at leadership, I won't put them in a position where I need someone to exert leadership. If they aren't working at their analysis skills, I won't put them in charge of an analysis project.

I'm not sure whether this is fully fair to people or not. If you asked HR, they would say that developing people means guiding them towards wanting to improve as well as helping those who want to improve actually do so. However, I don't tend to see much other than frustration in trying to change what people want.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Confessions of a Confirmation Catechist: Confirmation

As I watched from the choir loft this past Saturday, my Confirmandi were sealed with the Holy Spirit. The loft offers a fine vantage point. I was able to identify all my students (and even put names to most of them) and pray for them as they came down the aisle. God bless her. God bless him. God bless That Guy. Everyone seemed to be standing straight, as we practiced. Yes, we practiced standing straight -- when people are nervous, they tend to hunch down into themselves, and instead of making them invisible, it only draw attention. Standing straight doesn't draw attention. And most of my students aren't eager to draw attention to themselves.

The bishop came down and asked questions, as always, and the kids did an acceptable job of answering them. And then, and then, the bonus question:

"Can anyone tell me," the bishop asked, "the names of the first twenty-five popes?"

And Tim P. -- the man, the myth, the legend -- stood up and reeled off all twenty-five, much to the astonishment of the bishop. I was up in the choir loft, counting along, cheering him on, exulting. The bishop was astonished.

"Well, that's the last time I ask that question," he said. And he was true to his word. Much to my dismay (and the dismay of the two or three people who were prepped), at the afternoon Confirmation mass he switched it up and asked about the four major prophets. Still, it happened once, and someone in a position to know told me that it was the first time anyone had ever answered this question the bishop has asked every year at every confirmation. And as the word is that the bishop is retiring this summer, I think that St. Mary's PSR is primed to go down in the history books as The Class that Knew the First 25 Popes. Extra credit to Tim P.!

I suppose I ought to say more about the sacrament itself, but I've always found that my encounters with the one-time sacraments are very human moments. At baptisms, the concern is holding the baby so that the water doesn't go up its nose. My own First Communion and Confirmation were moments not marked by any strong emotion or spiritual revelation. At my wedding, I was in agonies walking up the aisle with everyone looking at me (I hunched) and at the moment of the vows I had to concentrate on making myself look at Darwin instead of looking down. This Confirmation was no different. I prayed for the Holy Spirit to come upon the kids, of course, but much of the mass for me was taken up with juggling hymnals and trying to sight read the alto part, because our music ministry  is in a transition period and so I didn't know what we were singing until the day of.

This is one reason, I think, why the much-maligned Law is so valuable. We don't control our emotional responses to grace, but we can offer our obedience to God's commands. You don't know when you attend mass if you're going to have great consolations or spiritual dryness or just a run-of-the-mill experience -- and God's grace isn't determined by any of those experiences -- but you can be obedient and attend mass regardless of "what you get out of it". You can be obedient and go to confession and be forgiven, whether it's exciting or frightening or just something you do. God isn't constrained by our human experiences of him, and thank God for that.

We have two more classes left in the year, and I'd like to make them fun for the kids, but right now I'm taking a breather. Come, Holy Spirit.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Reflections on a Lent Without Facebook

When MrsDarwin decided to get off Facebook for Lent, I did not originally intend to do likewise. I wasn't not entirely pleased with the place that online socializing served in my life. I felt that my tendency to scroll down the feed in moments of spare time ate up more of my day than I wanted and also took up a good deal more mental space that I would prefer. Even if I wasn't actually online, the memory of some frustrating argument or simplistic meme that a friend has posted, or some long thread of comments which had turned into a nasty pile-on, would stick with me and continue turning over in the back of my mind as I considered possible rebuttals or simply felt down about how frustrating people could be.

And yet, online discussion and friendship has served an important purpose in my life for a long time.

Part of this is simply because of lack of time. I'm at a point of life (and likely will continue so for another ten or fifteen years as I have the last ten) where work and family life take up virtually all of my time except for the few hours late at night when I write. I enjoy discussing books and ideas and the issues of the day with MrsDarwin at home, and it's even beginning to be possible to do so with the children as well. But I enjoy the the chance to discuss things that are important to me with people other than members of my own direct family, and the tendency over the last decade is that this mostly only occurs online.

Why don't I have those conversations in real life more often? As I mentioned above, there's the lack of time in my current state in life, but there's also the constriction of trying to maintain amicable relations with people I interact with in various real life circumstances. I've long had an absolute policy of not discussing contentious subjects such as politics, religion, etc. at work. Indeed, since my interests in history and literature are fairly obscure, I mostly end up restricting myself exclusively to talking about work itself, and about harmless topics such as "How was your weekend?" Perhaps I'm giving up the chance to have deeper conversations, but I'm also giving up the chance to turn work relationships toxic by expressing opinions which are potentially offensive to other people. The same calculus often comes into play on the occasions I interact with people at the parish, other scout dads, etc. The online world seems a decent place to have these kind of potentially contentious discussions, because people can always walk away if they don't like the conversation.

And yet, my problem was, I clearly wasn't walking away enough. Much more so than during the years when my primary online interaction was through the blog, the world of Facebook seemed to bring out the worst in others and in myself. The pressures of the online herd mentality wrongly encourage people to display their group membership by sharing the latest pat slogan or smug meme, and my own argumentativeness then leaves me either wanting to argue the point or else feeling frustrated with the whole experience. Much as a value the may friends that I've made online (many of whom I've since had the opportunity to meet in person) it seemed that the venue of social media was not bringing out the best in me or in people that I otherwise liked.

So I decided to stay off Facebook for Lent, with a brief dip in every Sunday to post links and catch up on news from friends. To the extent that my goal was to disconnect from the outrage cycle, the fact that this meant I logged off right before the Parkland school shooting only served to reinforce my reasons for getting offline. If it had seemed before like online discourse was degenerating to high school levels, now the political discourse of high schoolers with all its simplification and hyperbole was being held up as a better and purer standard that adults needed to listen to and emulate. Between that and the continued antics of the White House occupant (whose own behavior often reflects all the worst aspects of a middle schooler), national discourse have reached new heights of immaturity.

What have I done while unplugged? I've read more. I've worked more on revising the novel I shortly want to send out for submission. It's also aligned with a period when I've been busier than ever at work and engaged in several interesting projects there, so lacking distractions has been beneficial.

And now as Lent draws to a close, I need to decide what I should do after Lent. I'd disengaged from Facebook over Lent not so much as a sacrifice but because I thought it was becoming an obstacle to good will and piece of mind for me. I've indeed found that being unplugged has been a great improvement. And yet, I don't want to lose track of all the friends that I hear from primarily via the venue, many of whom I met either through the blog or through Facebook itself. And yet I don't know that I myself have changed enough to return to daily engagement with Facebook without returning to my old bad habits and frustrations. It's not a simple matter of disconnecting from toxic groups and people, because it seems to me that the big issue is that the medium itself encourages myself and others that I like to behave more toxically than we otherwise would do.

I do not have an answer yet, but I'm going to need to come to one.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Arts, Liberal and Servile

Economist Bryan Caplan definitely deserves points for being an interesting and provocative intellectual voice. His proposal for ideological Turing Tests is one of the best recommendations for understanding across divisive issues that I've heard, and inspired Leah Libresco's series of religious Turing Tests between Christians and atheists. Several years back he wrote the book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think, which was an interesting run at some sacred cows of current US upper middle class culture. His latest book is also provocative in its approach: The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money. To quote the blurb:

Despite being immensely popular--and immensely lucrative―education is grossly overrated. In this explosive book, Bryan Caplan argues that the primary function of education is not to enhance students' skill but to certify their intelligence, work ethic, and conformity―in other words, to signal the qualities of a good employee. Learn why students hunt for easy As and casually forget most of what they learn after the final exam, why decades of growing access to education have not resulted in better jobs for the average worker but instead in runaway credential inflation, how employers reward workers for costly schooling they rarely if ever use, and why cutting education spending is the best remedy.

This is the sort of thing which is likely to draw multiple conflicting opinions out of me, so I've been following coverage with interest. Yesterday I ran into an interesting interview with Caplan which was posted at the American Enterprise Institute. If you want to get a sense of where he's coming from, it's a worthwhile read.

Obviously, Caplan's issue is not with education as a whole. He highlights basic skills like math and reading as essential to getting along in life. However, he contends that much of the content included in the K-12 curriculum is not actually necessary. For example, he points out that most high schoolers in the US are required to study two years of foreign language, and yet although people are put into classes that allegedly teach language, there's clearly little real concern about people learning it. The classes themselves do not in fact get people to reach fluency in the language being studied, and colleges generally make no effort to establish that students actually speak or read the language which their transcripts say they studied.

Here's an exchange on what he'd like to see change in regards to pre-college education:
Question: Let’s say policymakers have really bought into your thesis and made big changes. What is the education system, the work-training system, however you want to describe it? What does that look like?

Caplan: So the main difference is just that people spend fewer years in school. And when you are a little kid you learn the stuff that you need like reading, writing, literacy, numeracy but you have a lot more free time to enjoy your childhood. But then anyways the people who are going to be doing cognitively demanding jobs, they are going to be needing to do something similar to at least high school. I think for a lot of other people they are just going to get vocational education when they are in their mid-teens like countries like Germany and Switzerland often do. And then finally of course there is always going to be a small number of people who are going and doing your very traditional college education, you know especially people that are going to be doing vocational majors, or if you have parents who just want to go and spend an enormous pile of money for you to go and have a hobby for a few years. There are some people like that; that was true in the 19th century.

Basically the main picture is that people start adult life at a much earlier age and parents do not have to support people until they are 30.

There's an extent to which I can agree with this. One of the things which has struck me, given that my own primary education was half in normal schools and half homeschooled, and now guiding my children through homeschooling while many of their friends are in public or parochial schools, is that there's not actually massive amounts that one needs to teach in the younger years. Learning to read, write, and do arithmetic only takes an hour or two a day for kids in the first half of their school careers. The sorts of history and science which are learned in K-5 or so are also very basic and perhaps best taught informally.

And yet, as we start to deal with older students, my views begin to diverge from Caplan's quite a bit. He has this to say about history and literature in college:
Question: I feel like, for instance, English literature has made me a better writer. Therefore my writing is better today because I read all that, and poetry too I imagine would have helped in some fashion. Maybe it’s hard to figure out the exact chain of the relationship but I feel like if I had not taken those classes I would not be as good a writer.

Caplan: So here is what I say: Most professors, when they go through their educational career, are able to take a lot of classes where not only do they not use them but it’s pretty foreseeable that you would never use things like Latin. And the thing to remember is that if you are a professor or are working at a think tank, you do have a job that’s much more closely tied to what you learned in school than most people. So again if you work at a think tank or are a professor, maybe you do use history on the job. But if you are a business person the odds that you would ever rely upon history to make a business decision in any way that would be useful is very slim. And the same goes for so much of the academic curriculum. So you have to learn Shakespeare, the English that was spoken 500 years ago, and you have foreign language. Even higher mathematics is useful only in a narrow range of jobs. For most people, they never use what they study after the final exam, yet employers care, and that’s the key part.
This reminds me a bit of the Sherlock Holmes story in which Holmes tells Watson that his memory is so valuable that me makes an effort never to learn anything he won't need for his profession. Watson is shocked to learn that Holmes does not realize that the Earth orbits around the Sun, while far from valuing this information Holmes tells Watson he'll endeavor to forget the fact as quickly as possible so it won't take up space that could be used for some more valuable fact.

I'm sure there's a great deal that I've learned which I have never and will never use in my job. However, even if my employer has not particular reason to care whether I learned about the Peloponnesian War or read War & Peace, I think that it's very good for me as a person that I did.

When writing about education, classical and medieval authors talked about the "liberal arts", by which they meant the studies which were appropriate to a free man. While in modern usage "liberal arts" includes 'soft' subjects such as literature, history, and languages as compared to fields such as math, science, and engineering, the traditional seven subjects of liberal education were: the Trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric), the Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy) and finally at the top of the educational pyramid philosophy and theology.

The point of the label 'liberal' was not to distinguish one set of academic subjects from another, but to distinguish the tools of knowledge with general application which a free man ought to know in order to prepare him for all endeavors in life from servile arts, what we might think of as job training. I wrote a set of three posts dealing with the liberal versus servile arts and a rough attempt at updating the concept a few years ago: one, two, three.

We live in an age of specialists. Perhaps this is why, while up until the 1800s there was still some credibility to the idea of a liberally educated person making real contributions to multiple different fields as his interests drew him, in our modern world were most advances are made by people who are specialists in sub-fields within fields the idea of the liberal arts has fallen on hard times. And while many of the people seeking a university education a couple hundred years ago came from a class which did not really expect to maintain themselves by labor, today we have a majority of Americans at least attempting college (though the number who finish a four year degree or a more advanced degree is only around 35%.) While I'd argue that the reason why someone ought to go to college is to get a liberal education, the reason that most people actually go is "to get a good job".

If that's the reason for getting a college degree, is Caplan right that we should turn our focus away from getting more people to go to college and more towards job training programs that could get people ready for a career more quickly and at lower cost?


I might try to make a pragmatic argument for the liberal arts, saying that flexibility and the ability to learn new systems of thought is both valuable on the job and also imparted by the traditional fields of liberal arts. But I'd at the same time have to admit that studying many of the fields often derided for impracticality does not necessarily get one the sort of broad liberal arts education which I would tend to advocate. In modern America, sectors of many academic fields have worked hard to make themselves irrelevant, at times even attacking the old categories of knowledge on which the classical liberal arts centered.

The interviewer does a good job of asking Caplan what he thinks the world should look like, and he describes one that, while utilitarian, is not necessarily unreasonable. What would my own suggestion for changes in the world look like?

I do think it would be good employers stopped the credential arms race, first expecting everyone to have a four year degree, and then increasingly expecting them to have a masters degree. I think that some sort of much more focused practical training in various job related areas would be a faster and cheaper way to meet the needs of work than the inflation of fields like "business administration" into a four year college degree and a two year graduate degree.

And perhaps, with people no longer using "you need it to get a job" as an excuse to constantly inflate the cost of a college education (a cost which to a great extent is not going to the actual teachers, libraries, labs, and classrooms which are actually essential to the theoretical educational mission of a college) it would become less of a financial obstacle for a person who has the interest and aptitude to pursue an education in the traditional liberal arts or one of the modern fields that are their successors to do so without incurring ruinous amounts of debt.

In the meantime, I'll continue to be a proud Classics Major turned Director of Pricing Analytics. And even if there is no direct path from mastering Greek and Latin grammar to being the person willing to build databases and teach myself machine learning while others who took the MBA route complain to me "numbers make my head hurt", I think that at some level the mental habits and abilities I learned back in college have allowed me to become the self-taught analytics person that I am today.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

General Grant as Persona

I've been reading Ron Chernow's biography of Ulysses Grant as an audiobook during my commutes lately. I'm enjoying it a lot.

It's an interesting contrast to his biography of Hamilton, which served as the inspiration for the famous musical. You can see why Hamilton is popular as a persona with the musical's fans. Hamilton is a perfect avatar for today's young elites: Brilliant, eager, forward thinking, flawed yet conscious of his flaws.

Chernow chose to write about both Hamilton and Grant, and in both cases he took on a major figure of a period of American history who came to be dismissed by the common wisdom of following periods. Hamilton was dismissed by the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian schools of American democracy as an aristocrat and elitist. Grant was spurned by the post-reconstruction school as a corrupt, bumbling president and a general who was only great in his relentlessness.

The picture of Grant which Chernow paints is more interesting than Grant the bumbler, Grant the butcher, or Grant the drinker. I also find myself wondering if he's a person whom many of Chernow's Hamilton fans would find it hard to like, particularly if he did not have the distance of being in the past.

I had known that Grant struggled against alcoholic tendencies. He was someone who showed the effects of drink after just one or two drinks (those who knew him in that condition described him as a stupid though amiable drunk) and who found it almost impossible to stop at one drink. Once he had any alcohol, he was likely to continue on to a several day spree. What I had not known before was that because he recognized this tendency in himself Grant was a strong temperance advocate, repeatedly taking the pledge to totally abstain from alcohol and supporting the temperance movement which would eventually lead to Prohibition in the early 20th century.

Grant's support for the temperance cause aligned his with strict Methodist religious principles, principles that were apparently also expressed in his strong dislike for swearing and any sort of talk which he felt cheapened women.

Aside from his occasional relapses into heavy drinking, Grant was also extremely staid in his personal life. Unlike the flirtatious Hamilton, who became the epicenter for the first great American political sex scandal, Grant was very much a one woman man, utterly devoted to his wife Julia -- a woman whom many of his contemporaries described as ugly and who remained attached to the slave owning society in which she grew up, but who also was devoted to Ulysses and a great fan of literature. Julia found reading hard because of a problem with one of her eyes (the result of a childhood injury) so in their home life Ulysses often read aloud to her.

Chernow clearly finds great humanity in Grant, the man of strict temperance principles who nonetheless fell to his alcoholic weakness at intervals, the brilliant general who was such a failure at business in civilian life that he had to live off his father and father-in-law's charity. I agree. However, it also struck me it would be easy for many modern readers to despise Grant, particularly if they saw him as a modern type rather than a period one: A strictly religious military man who encourages people to "take the pledge" never to drink, who dislikes all swearing and jokes with sexual overtones, yet is also known to at times get drunk for days at a time. He could as easily be painted as an up-tight hypocrite as a sympathetically flawed and human character.

I'm glad that Chernow resisted any urge to scoff at Grant in that way, and I hope that his readers will as well. The man who emerges from these pages is worthy of admiration.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Repost: Orphan Opening: Unless A Grain Of Wheat Fall To The Ground

A post from 2015 that fits with yesterday's Gospel reading.


The initial coolness was like the peace of death. Before, she had felt and tallied Brian's every thoughtless act or wounding word. Now, real and perceived grievances all beaded up and rolled off of her like rain down a marble monument. It was so liberating to put the pain behind her, to move to a state in their marriage in which she could hide herself away and play the role of wife. They still did all the same things. They got up, danced around each other in the bathroom, went to work, had dinner together, had sex. The sex was better than before, actually, because now there was a corner of her mind where she could watch herself and improve her performance and adjust her mental game when necessary.

But even death is not static. Repose becomes decay. She had thought that she was preserving the marriage by closing herself off. One day she realized that Brian had ceased to expect anything from her. He had become other to her, and now she was other to him. They were two people in a house, partners in management, marking the time with manners. She had died to him, but she had not counted on him dying to her. It was frightening to realize that she was interchangeable.

One day at the office she stopped by Sofia's cubicle to drop off a report. A faded inspirational poster was tacked up to the divider, a backlit image of a stalk of wheat with the caption, "Unless a grain of wheat fall to the ground and die, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit."

"What does that mean?" she asked Sofia.

"I don't know? It was my dad's, it used to hang in his office. I think it's that... the wheat can't grow unless it's transformed? The grain by itself doesn't change, but when it's planted and starts to grow, it bursts open and warps out of shape and is destroyed, and in the process it becomes something bigger and better, something it never could have become on its own. It has to die to go on living."

"That sucks."

Sofia shrugged. "Most living feels like dying anyway."

"But it doesn't really die," she said. "How can it grow into a plant unless it's alive?"

"I guess the grain of wheat part of it dies."

"That's pretty lousy for the grain," she said, unreasonably annoyed on behalf of an anonymous seed.

"It's not like it was going to last forever on its own. Get planted or get eaten."

"And those are the only two options?"

"Or decay in storage," said Sofia, turning back to her computer.


On her way home she picked up Chinese food from a place Brian liked. At home she pulled out dishes and candles and plated everything up just like she'd read about in an article about reviving the spark in your marriage. Brian called her as she was throwing away the containers.

"I'm going to be late, babe," he said. "The project is running late, and you know how it is. Don't wait for me to eat. I'm just going to grab a sandwich somewhere up here."

It was like him to spring this on her. Several cool replies simmered within her, and she considered which one would be most effective.

Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground...

"Okay," she said. "What if I come up there and eat with you?"

"You want to come all the way up here?" he said. "I'm only going to have about ten minutes."

Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies...

"I don't mind. I'd like to."

"Um, okay. Sure, if you want."

"Thanks." She swallowed. "I love you."

There was silence on the line for a moment. She closed her eyes and waited.

"Yeah, you too," he said shortly. "See you."

She picked up the plates and started scraping them in the trash, wondering at the strange bitter pang of the first blade of wheat piercing through the confines of the dead husk.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Repost: π With Jesus

(A repost from last year, when Pi Day was at the beginning of Lent, and St. Patrick's Day on a Friday. This year, we're eating both cherry and pumpkin pies.)

It's the second week of Lent, which means that observance has lost its zest. I don't know about you, but I'm yearning for a bit of chocolate. Not a bright, hopeful yearning; a dry, intellectual, arid yearning, because I know I'm not going to eat chocolate anyway. I just want it because it's better than not-chocolate.

So we search for a reason to celebrate, and not the corny-beef celebration of St. Patrick's Day dispensations (which St. Patrick would have disdained) but something rounder, to bring us full circle. And lo! It is Pi Day, 3.14. But we cannot fudge on Pi Day without bringing it into some greater religious context. And not just the context of "God made it, and it is good," because God made chocolate too, and we're not eating that.

Of course, the key question is: would Jesus have known about Pi? Not known-known as God knows all things, but as a person growing up in a first-century Jewish culture, in the course of his human knowledge would he have been likely to encounter the concept of Pi?

Dr. Google offers us thoughts on "mathematics in ancient Israel pi", presenting The Secret Jewish History of Pi:
The relationship between a circle’s diameter — a line running straight through cutting it into two equal halves — and its circumference — the distance around the circle – was originally mentioned in the Hebrew Book of Kings in reference to a ritual pool in King Solomon’s Temple. The relevant verse (1 Kings 7:23) states that the diameter of the pool was ten cubits and the circumference 30 cubits. In other words, the Bible rounds off Pi to about three, as if to say that’s good enough for horseshoes and swimming pools. 
Later on, the rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud, who knew that the one-third ratio wasn’t completely accurate, had a field day with the Bible having played fast and loose with the facts, arguing in their characteristic manner that of course it depended on whether you measured the pool from the inside or the outside of the vessel’s wall. They also had fun with some of the Gematria – the numerical value – of the words in the original passage, which when you play around with them a bit indeed come a lot closer to the value of Pi, spelling it out to several decimal points.
"Secret" here might be a bit sensationalistic, seeing as 1Kings is not exactly an occult piece of literature. The Journal of Mathematics and Culture May 2006, V1(1) offers us a more scholarly explanation via Lawrence Mark Lesser's article "Book of Numbers: Exploring Jewish Mathematics and Culture at a Jewish High School":
A value of π can be obtained from I Kings 7:23: 
“He made the ‘sea’ of cast [metal] ten cubits from its one lip to its [other] lip, circular all around, five cubits its height; a thirty-cubit line could encircle it all around.” 
It appears the value of π implied here is simply 30/10 (an error of 4.5%) until a student asks if we need to consider the tank’s thickness -- given three verses later as one-handbreadth, so the inner diameter is 10 cubits minus 2 handbreadths. (Of course, this is also a chance to discuss issues of measurement!) Using the Talmudic value of 1/6 cubit for one handbreadth, the inner diameter becomes 9 2/3 cubits and dividing 30 by 9 2/3 yields more accuracy (error: 1.2%). Applying a more subtle and technical approach to I Kings 7:23 (see Posamentier & Lehmann 2004 or 20 Tsaban & Garber 1998), the ratio of gematrias for the written and spoken forms of a key Hebrew word (for “line”) in that verse is 111/106, which when multiplied by 3 yields a very refined approximation for π : 333/106 (error: 0.0026%). Very few words in the Torah have different oral and written forms. 
By Jewish Encyclopedia [Public domain or Public domain]

Jesus was well versed in the law and the prophets, and it is not a stretch to assume that the account of the building of Solomon's Temple and the fashioning of the great pillars and vessels of bronze was known to him. Could he have known about pi? Could he? Should we doubt his scriptural knowledge? Listen to this.
After three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions, and all who heard him were astounded at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished, and his mother said to him, “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. (Luke 2:46-50)
Do you not understand? Jesus, in the Temple itself, astounding the teachers with his knowledge and his answers, and talking of his Father's house -- the very house for which the bronze vessel was created*? Even his parents could not understand Pi, as happens with so many parents dealing with their children's math.

My friends. The Scriptures themselves proclaim Pi. Take and eat.

*Not actually the very house, since it was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC, and not the very basin, since 2 Kings tells us that the Chaldeans destroyed it. But still.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Confessions of a Confirmation Catechist: I Wonder

The kids were watching the movie Wonder, about a 10-year-old boy with severe facial deformities who is going to school for the first time. (Mother, played by Julia Roberts: "I can't keep homeschooling him!" Me: "Yes, you can.") Some of the kids at school are mean to him, openly mocking him with Star Wars-derived taunts such as "Barf Hideous". 

"Who would do that?" I said. "Nobody does that."

And then I thought about the boys in my confirmation class, and I had to backtrack, because just the other week I had to speak to several of them about making cruel remarks about people. They were under the impression that they were being very funny.

"Gentlemen," I said. "I can hear you. We do not speak about other people that way. It isn't befitting of their dignity as children of God, and it isn't befitting of you either. I'm not going to contact your parents this time, because I believe that you are old enough to correct yourselves, and that I won't hear anything else like this from you."

I think that the student offended against would have preferred me to make a more public example of the young men, but I explained that I followed the fine example of my father, who knew that a word in time was worth more than any amount of lecturing, and who trusted to the Holy Spirit to act upon the word that was planted.

The next week I wondered about this strategy. We were going to Confession as a class, and I challenged the class to sit in silence before the penance service began.

"How many of you have much silence in your lives?" I said. "Do you have what it takes to stop making noise, and listen to God?"

I've never had to separate so many people during a class period, and not only before the service but during it as well. The need to whisper, giggle, and poke each other carried through the confession lines and throughout the rows of kids doing their penances. I assume they comported themselves in the confessional, anyway.

This is not to say that all my kids are hooligans. In fact, there are quite a few who listen to me and seem to understand, and there is one young man who does quiet acts of service for me every week in a way that indicates that he's internalized the gospel and is living it out. But the majority do not seem to be moved by theological concepts, or interested in reading the Bible (or even capable of looking up a passage), or to realize that any part of the gospel message is directed at them, personally. There is no apathy like the apathy of the bored teenager.

I know that God loves these kids. I know that there is in each of them a spark of the divine, some aspect of God's creative love that is manifested uniquely in them. I've told them so, many times. But it's buried so deep in some people -- not just my kids in class, but in general. There are so many humans on this earth, and God loves each and every one of them personally. He delights in them. How can we uncover this delightfulness? How can we see what God sees? How can we help them see it for themselves? I've been reading through Exodus, and I feel a great affinity with Moses, interceding for a stiff-necked people, fickle, ungrateful, and unreflective.

Internet Catholics are not a homogenous lot, but we do have one thing in common: we care enough to read and write about the faith, and we have the ability to express ideas in words, in writing. I've been removed from the fever swamps of online discussion for the past few weeks -- hell, I've even been removed from the fertile valleys of discussion -- and, from laboring in the trenches with the Catholics who are my literal neighbors, I can say: whatever it is that the denizens of St. Blog's are e-debating, the people around me don't care. Your controversies are not their controversies. The battle lines drawn online mean nothing to the average Catholics in the pew. 

Not only that, but most people do not live the examined life. I know that having intellectual affinities doesn't make someone a better person -- I see smart jerks around, and intelligent people who have no moral sense. But at least in those cases you have the illusion that you can reason with such folk. I feel like the Holy Spirit has been putting me through a course in humility, so that I will realize that it is not my own erudition, personality, or presentation that will move my students. The battle belongs to the Lord.

 And the Holy Spirit's timeline is not my timeline. Most weeks my words seem ineffectual, and I have to trust that he will plant the seeds and nurture them, even if I never see a return. Likely I'll never know the future stories of the kids in my class, other than the few that I know personally, or whose parents I see around. 

In the meantime, unlike Julia Roberts, I'm fully prepared to keep homeschooling my own kids. I've had enough vicarious mean kids drama to last me a while.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

The Hamilton Polka

Being off Facebook for Lent has had its many consolations, one of which is that I'm the last person to know anything. But my brother watches out for me, and has sent me the only thing of any import to happen in the past weeks, so you'll forgive me for indulging in one of my few fandoms. I give you: The Hamilton Polka by Weird Al Yankovic.

And here are Weird Al, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Jimmy Fallon lip-syncing it.

I will now retire back into my obscurity, happy to know that such a thing exists.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Caplan and Bruenig on Capitalism vs Socialism

Sometimes a debate is an interesting way to see proponents of opposing views confront the roots of their disagreement, and sometimes it's more an exercise in rhetorical ships passing in the night. As far as I can tell from the text parts posted online (a recording of the debate itself is not available, at least as of yet) the debate at LibertyCon between libertarian Bryan Caplan (opening statement posted here) and Christian socialist Elizabeth Bruenig (opening statement here) seems to be more the latter kind of debate, but their pieces are both interesting, though frustrating at times in both their limitations. There's also a follow-up post where Caplan responds in writing to Bruenig's opening statement.

I clearly agree far more on economics with Caplan. However, the philosophy he roots his argument in is that 'capitalism' is good because it's based on utterly free choice:
What's so awesome about the capitalist ideal? It's a system based on individual freedom and voluntary consent. You're allowed to do what you want with your own body and your own stuff. If other people want to cooperate with you, they have to persuade you; if you want other people to cooperate with you, you have to persuade them. Can consent really be "voluntary" if some people have a lot more to offer than others? Absolutely. Some people are vastly more attractive than others, but that does nothing to undermine the voluntariness of dating. Under capitalism, how people use their freedom is up to them; they can try to get rich, they can relax, they can help the poor, all three, or none of the above.
The extreme individualism of his thought is shown by this example he uses:
Socialists like to compare their ideal society to a family. But in actual families, you don't have to support your siblings if you don't want to. Indeed, you don't even have to support your parents who gave you life. Why should your moral obligations to complete strangers be any stronger? The idea that the rich are morally obliged to give away everything they don't need until poverty is vanquished has some superficial appeal. But objectively speaking, almost all of us have vastly more than we need, especially if you remember the market value of all your free time. I loathe hyperbole, but if a socialist government enforced the obligation to give away all your surplus to the poor, you would literally be a slave.
I have moral disagreements with this. I think that we do indeed have obligations to help our siblings, our parents, our friends and neighbors in their times of need. Does this mean we have an enforced obligation to, as Caplan says "give away all your surplus to the poor"? No, not necessarily. I'm not sure that our moral obligation to others is quantified in terms of how much of our goods are "surplus" and how much of them we have to give away. However, I am certain that it's an immoral response to someone who comes to us in real need to say, "Too bad. I don't care."

Caplan seems to think of the ideal society primarily in terms of material goods. In his followup piece, he reacts with some scorn to Bruenig's citations of great Western thinkers and says:
I spent many years studying intellectual history. Still, my honest reaction: While these "luminaries" were smart, most were also profoundly ignorant and dogmatic - and apologists for the brutal societies in which they lived. Most had near-zero knowledge of what actually sustains the true and beautiful in our culture, namely: science, tolerance, and markets. They have far more to learn from us - both factually and morally - than we do from them.

That said, I suspect the large majority of these luminaries would look at us with amazement. Indeed, when they exited of the time machine, they'd wonder if they'd died and gone to heaven. After all, they'd witness amazingly well-fed, healthy people enjoying a cornucopia of technology and art beyond their wildest dreams. Then they'd learn about the abolition of slavery and serfdom, the amazing progress of women, and the peaceful co-existence of conflicting religions and philosophies. And hygiene. And Netflix.

Would any of the luminaries till have the nerve to call us "unfree"? Probably a few misanthropes and hate-mongers like Augustine and Marx, though perhaps even they could be shock-and-awed to their senses by our resplendent world.
I clearly hold figures like Augustine and Socrates in rather more regard than Caplan does, and I feel confident that if they encountered our modern society that while they would indeed be impressed by our clean water, our medicine, our fast transportation, and the leisure time which our technology allows us, that they would in no way confuse our modern world with heaven because they would recognize people themselves as being morally very much what they have been in the past. Now as in the 4th century BC or the fourth century AD, people are sometimes virtuous and sometimes wicked, sometimes generous and sometimes selfish, etc.

Given all this, one might expect me to be in more agreement with Bruenig's piece. And yet, if I often found Caplan's piece to be blind towards the moral aspects of society, I found Bruenig full of her own problems. She opens with a nice classical allusion:
It seems very fitting to me that we should discuss these matters at LibertyCon, as I do agree that we are currently facing a crisis of liberty. The great authors of the Western tradition, the ancients and the late antique and medieval luminaries who laid out the foundations for what remains true and beautiful in our culture, would look see us as profoundly unfree.

There is the first and greatest matter of interior unfreedom. In the Phaedrus, one of his Socratic dialogues, Plato had his mentor liken the human soul to a team of two winged horses led by their charioteer. “The horse that is on the right, or nobler, side,” Socrates says, “is a lover of honor with modesty and self-control; companion to true glory, he needs no whip, and is guided by verbal commands alone.” Meanwhile, “the other horse is a companion to wild boasts and indecency, he is shaggy around the ears-deaf as a post-and just barely yields to horsewhip and goad combined.” The bad horse, undisciplined and self-indulgent, is always dragging its poor yokemate and charioteer into pathetic and immoral behavior; it is unbridled lust and greed and ravenous want, and its domination of its team is the very definition of unfreedom. Nobody ruled by such mad appetites could be said to be truly free.

Then there is the matter of exterior freedom. In Politics, Aristotle considered the natural slave, “one who is,” in the words of Greek philosophy scholar Joseph Karbowski, “naturally suited for slavery…a human being who is by nature suited to be a piece of property that belongs to someone else and functions as a second-order tool for action.” Aristotle’s natural slaves are confined to pursuing the interests and purposes of others, he imagines, by a kind of moral and psychological weakness; so much less binds us to the same sort of existence, performing labor that only serves another person’s ends, selling off the possibility of living toward our own. And we are not short on masters: St. John Chrysostom, the fourth-century bishop of Constantinople, warned the idle rich of his day: “Possessions are so called so that we may possess them, not so that they possess us. Why do you regard the master as a slave? Why do you invert the order?” No longer is this inversion an affliction strictly of the rich; it characterizes our entire social order.

It’s something of a shame now to see these greats peering down at us from the occasional courthouse pediment or Cathedral niche. What would they make of us now? We’re ruled by passions and owned by things; we have been taught that freedom is a vast blankness defined only by its featurelessness, and we spend our lives laboring at the behest of others, in hopes of surpassing those nearest to us instead of cooperating with them.

The story of how we got to where we are is the story of the rise of capitalism — a historical condition in which economic and political power are arrayed according to the interests of capital owners, who in turn dominate their social landscapes. Capitalism itself sits at the center of a web of mutually reinforcing ideological and material structures which, taken together, diminish human freedom from the inside out, and militate against human flourishing.
I quote this first block of argument at some length because it seems to lay out Bruenig's central thinking on the topic. The problem identified is, of course, a real one. Many people are ruled by appetite, weighed down by attachment to their material possessions, etc. However, I'm unclear that this is necessarily much different from other eras. Does the fact that our economy is market based rather than being hunter gatherer or feudal or socialist mean that people like their things more now than at other times? The timelessness of these vices (even though they do come out in different ways in different places and times) can be seen in the satirical power which Petronius's Satyricon or Apuleius's The Golden Ass retain to this day. If Caplan is wrong to think that ancients would have believed today's world to be heaven, Bruenig seems equally wrong to think that the ancients would recognize humanity as clearly worse today than in ancient Greece and Rome. We're different, and our vices take different shape, but the universality of humanity in both its virtues and vices is precisely what makes the insights of writers such as Augustine as applicable today as sixteen hundred years ago.

Bruenig wants to imagine that capitalism is uniquely bad in terms of appealing to people's worse instincts:
Capitalism fosters an obsessive focus on one’s interests, meaning one’s material well-being, and argues that the pursuit of such is an unqualified moral good; it renders sustained contemplation for no other purpose than to know the truth utterly useless and irrational, and largely impossible. It is preferable, for capitalists, that we do not spend any time shaping or educating our wills, and thus they’re simultaneously weak and tyrannical.
It seems to me that this means giving "capitalism" much more philosophical robustness than needs or deserves. I'd argue that a decent definition of a capitalist or market economy would be one in which the means of production are owned by people or people grouped together in corporations or associations and in which the prices of product and of labor are set by the market, in other words by the balance of what buyers are willing to pay and sellers are willing to accept.

Does the fact that I can sell goods or labor for what price I choose rather than a price set by some sort of state agency or semi-formal democratic process mean that I care about my income more than about my love and obligations for family, church, town, etc.? Does the fact that I spend many of my hours in the office doing analysis to determine the right price to set for various consumer products mean that I must at other times be a beast of pure consumption and buy whatever widget comes before me while refusing to think about God, about truth, about art? Certainly not. Indeed, it is to a great extent because of the leisure time and comfort I earn through my market employment that I in turn have the time and resources to support my church, to read books, to produce art. Few of the workers of Socrates' day or Augustine's had the leisure and material comfort that I do. And indeed, everyone (even the richest) lived much more in danger of want and illness than I do in our modern, capitalist society. Certainly, many people today use their free time and their resources to do things which are shallow or materialistic, but that, again, is a very universal human failing. And while, in general, people in the past had fewer material comforts than we do today, that does not mean that they were less attached to them than we are to ours. Indeed, at times, the very scarcity of material comforts is what drives people to be all the more attached to what they do have.

Bruenig expresses concern that capitalism presents the false appearance of freedom, and in fact people are coerced by necessity into doing work from which they feel alienated:
The basic fact of capitalism is that the vast majority of people in society will work toward ends that are not their own, and are in some cases barely even known to them. In these circumstances, per Hughes, “the goal of the [worker’s] activity is no longer immediately present in the action, nor even partially inherent in it, but rather utterly extrinsic to it, and often quite distant.” Workers sell their labor — which, as Hegel pointed out in his Philosophy of Right, means nothing less than “alienating the whole of my time, as crystallized in my work, and everything I produced,” thus “making into another’s property the substance of my being,…my personality” — and in return receive a wage, essentially protection money to pay off other rentiers and commodity dealers for the use of the world.
One hears this account of alienation in capitalistic societies often from their critics, and yet a struggle to understand how this is necessarily different from other societies. Socrates, for instance, was a stone mason. When he cut stones, did he do so with the full knowledge of where those stones would fit in the finished building and they the building was being built? Or did he cut stone for a living because that was the trade he had been taught as a youth and thus the way that he could put bread on the table? Was he, in this sense, any different from the modern person who stocks shelves at Walmart or shuffles TPS reports around the office or installs back seats in cars on the assembly line?

And does socialism provide any closer connection between the worker and the meaning of his work? There is the old cynical line from the Eastern Bloc, "They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work," which hardly suggests a lack of alienation.

Here in the democratic West, many point to union work as how the whole economy ought to focus. And yet, whenever I have dealt with union work, the union mentality seems to be, "I don't care about the job or its object, I only care about following the maximal interpretation of the work rules and getting my breaks."

To my mind, work in a market economy is the least alienating work. Yes, modern economies are complex and companies can be bureaucratic despite their private ownership, but there is at least the basic human connection between the price of a thing and the value which someone else places upon it. If I want to earn more, I do it not by applying to the worker's committee or by seeking favor with the local lord, but by providing move value to others and thus by receiving more payment from them in return. This is the sense in which a market economy and its pricing mechanisms is a very human centered economy. What critics like to call the tyranny of the market can also be described as a system in which we earn money in proportion to how much we do things that are of value to others.

Bruenig talks about the goal of de-commodifying labor, saying:
education, for instance, is largely de-commodified; there is also a major grassroots movement to de-commodify healthcare. All this means is to protect certain domains from total domination by market-based forces. The de-commodification of labor, as my friend C.W. Strand has pointed out, leads to a circumstance in which “one’s livelihood — one’s survival, or economic reproduction — is no longer market-dependent.” Once labor is liberated from the pressures and caprices of the market, Strand also observed, “then the nature of the market itself changes: it ceases being a realm of imperatives, and instead becomes one of opportunities.” It returns a person’s creativity, agency, and time to them; it removes the penalty, or lowers the cost, if you like, of contemplation.
Of course, what is it that we see in some of the more de-commodified corners of education? Schools in which there are as many administrators as teachers and where the administrators are actually payed more than the teachers are. We critics of Bruenig's brand of socialism would point out this is rather what you would expect when an organization gets is money via politics and patronage rather than via providing actual value to those who benefit from it.

This is not to say that there are no difficulties with the market driven approach. A market economy works rather as democracy is described: it gives the people what they want and gives it to them good and hard. This means that when people refuse to pay as much as they should for some good (say, childcare workers) they get in return some mix of not-very-good workers providing that need (people unable to find something more highly paid to do) and people whose desire to provide a needed and important service is too strong to be dissuaded by the low pay. It's not unreasonable to think of that latter category as being harmed by the unwillingness of the majority of people to pay more for that important service. I can understand why it is that some people think the solution is to have the government step in and mandate that said service be paid at a higher level. Yet what this misses is two problems. First off, if our problem is that the great swathe of people are trying to get away with paying too little for a service to attract good workers, having the question decided by vote rather than by market will not necessarily produce better results. Secondly, disconnecting the pay for a service from the willingness of those receiving it to pay for it often itself degrades the quality. We see this in the area of education, where districts with powerful union presences often see bad teachers protected by the union despite the fact they're clearly not doing a good job of providing education.

I do not make some Panglossian argument that a market economy will fix all ills. It will not, because it is merely a mechanism for conveying to sellers what buyers are willing to pay, and the buyers themselves are often not virtuous. And yet, imperfect though a market economy is, it seems in general to function better than the alternatives.

UPDATE: I finally found a video of this debate (though I have not yet watched it.) You can view it here:

Monday, March 05, 2018

The AR-15 Is A Lot Like Other Rifles

Reading some of the pieces coming out from major venues such as the NY Times and The Atlantic over the weeks since the Parkland school shooting, it's struck me that we can see reporters at least trying to write factually accurate stories about the AR-15 type rifles which they clearly believe should be banned, yet not having the knowledge of the subject to allow them to put the facts they report into proper context.

For instance, a NY Times piece I saw the other day tries to make the case that AR-15 rifles are practically the same as the M-16 rifles and M-4 carbines used by the military. It provides the following image comparing an M-16 to models of AR-15 used in various mass shootings, one assumes in order to make the point that they look rather similar.

Then it admits the very significant feature which distinguishes military long arms from their civilian counterparts (selective fire: the existence of a mode in which the rifle can fire multiple shots while the trigger is held down) but argues that this feature is not very important:
The main functional difference between the military’s M16 and M4 rifles and a civilian AR-15 is the “burst” mode on many military models, which allow three rounds to be fired with one trigger pull. Some military versions of the rifles have a full automatic feature, which fires until the trigger is released or a magazine is empty of ammunition.

But in actual American combat these technical differences are less significant than they seem. For decades the American military has trained its conventional troops to fire their M4s and M16s in the semiautomatic mode — one bullet per trigger pull — instead of on “burst” or automatic in almost all shooting situations. The weapons are more accurate this way, and thus more lethal.
What all of this means is that the Parkland gunman, in practical terms, had the same rifle firepower as an American grunt using a standard infantry rifle in the standard way.
The article then attempts to lay out what the author believes are the important similarities between military rifles and AR-15 type civilian rifles:
Like the military’s M4s and M16s, civilian AR-15s are fed with box magazines — the standard magazine holds 30 rounds, or cartridges — that can be swapped out quickly, allowing a gunman to fire more than a hundred rounds in minutes. That is what the police described the Parkland gunman as having done. In many states, civilians can buy magazines that hold many more rounds, including 60- and 100-round versions.
The small-caliber, high-velocity rounds used in the military rifles are identical to those sold for the civilian weapons. They have been documented inflicting grievous bone and soft-tissue wounds. Both civilian and military models of the rifle are lightweight and have very little recoil.
Now, it's true that both the AR-15 and military rifles have detachable box magazines. However, that's a trait that AR-15 type rifles have in common with virtually all other semi-automatic rifles and even with a lot of bolt action rifles. Detachable magazines are hundred year old technology. It's easier to load a magazine when it's not attached to the rifle, and it's also easier to make sure that a gun is absolutely safe if you can simply take the magazine out and then work the action to be sure that's no round in the chamber.

It's also true that many AR-15s shoot the same .223 Remington/5.56 NATO round which is used by the US military. (Not all do. One of the reasons for the huge popularity of the AR-15 platform and its big brother that AR-10 is that they are incredibly modular designs which are available in a huge variety of calibers.) However, there are lots of rifles (including bolt action and single shot shot rifles) which use the popular .223 cartridge.

Some articles, most notably a piece in The Atlantic written by a radiologist who helped treat the Parkland victims, have pointed out that the .223 round fired by most AR-15s is far more destructive than the handgun rounds typically found in homicides and suicides. This is true. While rifles are only rarely used in crimes, they pack a much greater punch than pistols do, going through body armor and causing much worse wounds.

However, not only is the .223 not unique in this respect, it's actually one of the least powerful rifle cartridges. This is actually one of the reasons why the .223 is so popular: it's easy to shoot due to its low recoil and also cheap to buy because it has less material in it. A standard 55gr .223 bullet weighs only a third as much as a .30 caliber bullet such as might be used in a .308 or .30-06 round, and the size of the brass case and amount of powder used are also proportionally smaller. This is, interestingly, one of the reasons the US military adopted the diminutive .223: It's much lighter to carry and for infantry soldiers already carrying a lot of gear, weight matters.

Checking a handgun ballistics table, the popular 9mm Luger cartridge used in many popular pistols launches a bullet with 341 foot pounds of energy as it leaves the muzzle. Compare that to a rifle ballistics table and you can see why the radiologist writing in the Atlantic was shocked when she saw .223 wounds after having only dealt with handgun wounds in the past. The .223 bullet clears the muzzle with 1291 foot pounds of energy, almost four times the energy of the 9mm Luger. However, if you compare that to common hunting rifle cartridges, they are actually all significantly more powerful: .270 Winchester 2705 ft lbs, .308 Winchester 2649 ft lbs, .30-06 Springfield 2820 ft lbs

So although the .223 is about three times higher in energy than popular handgun rounds, many standard rifle rounds are actually twice as powerful as the .223. Indeed, many states ban the use of .223 when hunting deer on the theory that it is not lethal enough to cause a humanely quick death for the animal.

This is the major problem facing any attempt to reduce gun deaths by regulating particular gun features. While certain guns catch the imagination of the public as being more dangerous than others, the ones thus singled out function often very similarly to others in many important respects.